Understanding Grief as an MK

As missionary kids we have a history of abuse and/or abandonment.  If it didn’t happen to us, we saw it happening to someone else.  We were not unique among the children of the world. No matter where you go there are plenty of children living in horrific situations.

One thing that does make us unique is that when we were barely young adults, we were thrust into a brand new culture. This required a tremendous amount of energy to learn how to adapt and fit in. Perhaps it is being handled better today, but in my time there was little support for MKs moving to their home country. I personally experienced zero support from SIM when I was a young adult, and I know the same is true for many of my classmates. During the decades required to assimilate the new culture, childhood traumas were sent off to some remote part of the brain. These did not go away, they were only forgotten temporarily. Many MKs of my generation – 40s, 50s and older –  are finding that the past memories are bubbling back up to the surface.

The questions I hear often boil down to this: how can we leave the trauma of our past and move ahead into recovery and growth? I don’t have the answers. I am in the thick of it with the rest of you. However I do know that a predominant feeling we have as MKs is that of grief. We are still grieving the loss of our parents, our brothers and our sisters. We grieve the loss of innocence, the lack of justice, and the opportunities that we lost because of our struggles.

You probably know about the five stages of grief, a series of steps that a person walks through to come to terms with a great loss in their life. This theory was developed by Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying, which was first published in 1969. Even though stages or steps sounds like something you would walk through in order, Kübler-Ross maintained that this is not necessarily the case. They can happen out of order, and they can happen all at once.

The stages of grief are important to MKs because we must pass through some or all of these feelings on our journey of healing. This is what some of the stages might look like for an abused or neglected MK.

Denial: Based on my belief that all SIM missionary kids who attended boarding school either experienced or witnessed abuse or neglect, most of them are still in the stage of denial. Denial says we were the luckiest kids in the world, and hushes up anyone who brings up bad memories. We all agree there were good times, but denial insists they were ALL good, and if they weren’t good they were at least for our own good. Denial ignores or chastises MKs who talk about abuse. It is a fairly recent thing that we are finally seeing open discussions on social media about the pain and loss we experienced.

Anger: If a large portion of MKs are stuck in denial, anger runs a close second. It is easy to spot the anger by reading blogs, forums and Facebook pages focusing on abuse. Sometimes it is like a smoldering ember, sometimes more of a burning rage. MKs are angry at their parents who sent them away, at the missions who encouraged this and then mismanaged the boarding school, at teachers and dorm parents who ranged from cold and uncaring to downright cruel, at God who we were taught had ultimate control over our lives, and even at each other. There is so much unresolved hurt from those years. If we were thrown together in a room with our classmates, and were perfectly honest, we would all find that we were the victim of one person and the tormentor of someone else.

Bargaining: This is a negotiation with a higher power, and an attempt to gain some control over your situation. You want things to go back to the way they were before your loss. For us this might be loss of love and relationships in the midst of many moves. It could be loss of education and jobs due to the culture shock of coming back into your home country and not having support. It might be many years of lost opportunities due to depression, addictions, or just unfamiliarity with the culture and an inability to function. We might attempt to bargain with the mission to get some compensation. More often we make promises to God, the Universe, or whatever you consider to be your Higher Power. There is always something we can lay on the bargaining table. This line of thinking leads to a seemingly endless cycle of “What if” and “If only” queries, as we attempt to rewrite the past in our minds.

Depression: I believe depression is the most widespread legacy of our boarding school experience. This is also a common result of abuse. I know many who go through serious bouts of depression today. I myself have struggled with depression. It is an extremely difficult condition to overcome, since it isolates and paralyzes a person. Once you are in it, it is almost impossible to get out without help from outside.

It was surprisingly common for some of us to have suicidal thoughts when we were young. Some still have them today. Sadly there are SIM MKs who have committed suicide.

Acceptance: I suspect that what many MKs claim to be acceptance is actually denial. If you haven’t felt the loss and experienced the anger and the sadness, I seriously question how you are at peace with your boarding school experience. Granted some were worse than others, but every child in that school either experienced abuse themselves or witnessed abuse of one of their classmates. I know this is true because I saw it happening right out in the open on almost a daily basis.

That being said, I believe there are MKs who have successfully processed their grief and moved to acceptance. If this is you, I would love to hear from you. What was your grief experience? What kind of help did you have to move through these steps?

When you are in it, grief is a desperate and hopeless feeling that seems as if it will never end. I have to cling to the belief and the promise that there is an end to the long, dark night. Not just any end, but a glorious end. The morning will come and with it joy, that elusive fruit that always hangs just a little too high on the tree.

“For his anger endureth but a moment; in his favour is life: weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.”

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4 thoughts on “Understanding Grief as an MK

  1. Reread this again today. I am with my Mom who is on hospice. As far as grieving for her I have been going through the stages over and over since I was six. I think many of us came to the place of acceptance that they are gone from us a long time ago.

    • I’m so sorry to hear about your Mom, Shary. It is so true what you say. I often hear that people have not been able to get over the deaths of their elderly parents, that they miss them and think about them every day, and I don’t understand that at all. I love my parents, (Dad already deceased, Mom still alive), but it has been a long, long time since I thought about them every day, or felt like I needed them. Once you go through that grief process, which we did and have been doing since we were very young, you are not going to allow yourself the same emotional attachment again.

  2. Hi Liz I hope you receive a number of responses. I have passed this on to a number of FB sites with MKs. I was wondering is there a way for people to respond that is not public. Some might not want to share their story in such a public way. Sharing the story can be very hard for some.

    Personally I have been on this journey to find my way for close to 40 years, when at age 32 I was shocked out of denial. The grief never goes away and keeps coming back. Yes I have learned how to deal with it but it still comes back. Even the denial when hearing a new story from another, how can it possible have been that bad. I jump to the anger stage quickly because I know the stories are true. Though I don’t suffer from deep depression that causes me to stop functioning I have days when the negative emotions weigh me down. Still bargaining by trying to get missions to admit their part in the suffering of MKs. Bargaining with MK’s parents to accept the suffering of their own children. Acceptance that missions only have their own organization good in mind, that they never really cared about us is a hard pill to swallow. I believe the base of much of the suffering is abandonment you speak of. Being abandoned means I am alone, of no value to anyone else. Most MKs have been abandoned some at very young ages, or when set or left in their passport country in high school or college.

    • Hi Shary, thanks for sharing this with other MKs. People don’t need to give their real name when they respond, and the email address is not published with the comment. You can be as anonymous as you wish. There are a lot of commenters on this blog (in fact most of them I think) who don’t want to be identified. Also if you want to write to me and not have it posted, feel free to send me a message using the contact form up above, and that will go to my email.

      I agree, it is very hard to wrap your head around the notion that your mission really cares more about their own reputation and finances than they do about you. I have a huge issue with the way missions try to create this “big happy family” illusion, when in fact they are behaving like a cold and calculating business. Stay tuned for more about that topic! It’s great to hear from you, Shary.

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